SUMOMO FESTIVAL (2016)
Originally published in Metropolis Japan on August 17, 2016 (Link)
For a concentrated dose of local Japanese culture, you can’t do much better than heading to a festival. With a vast assortment taking place all throughout the year, Japan's festivals offer a window into the country’s history, folklore, and—rather importantly, in my opinion—food. It's a bold statement, but I'm sticking to it: no one does a food festival like Japan.
Each year on July 20, the Japanese plum gets its moment in the spotlight. The Sumomo Matsuri (Plum Festival) is held annually at Ōkunitama Shrine in Fuchū City, easily accessible from central Tokyo via either the Keio or Musashino Lines. Despite being only an hour’s ride from Tokyo's city center, there's a decidedly slower speed to Fuchū, and the sound of chirping cicadas that greets you upon exiting the station make for a fitting soundtrack to the festival’s rural origin story.
The legend goes something like this: 11th-century Japanese Imperial clan leader Minamoto no Yoriyoshi and his son stopped at Ōkunitama Shrine to ask the gods to grant them success in battle. To sweeten the deal and win some celestial favor, Minamoto offered them a single plum. When his Imperial forces subsequently trounced their adversaries—turns out the gods like stone fruit—the Sumomo Festival was born to celebrate their juicy victory.
These days, there's a few ways to celebrate Minamoto's big win. Eating the namesake fruit on the day of the festival is said to keep away both sickness and evil spirits. Luckily, there’s plenty on offer. The path to Ōkunitama Shrine is lined with a mix of food vendors, but plums occupy the bulk of the laneway. Sold individually or together in bright mesh bags, the delicious summer fruit comes in more colors, sizes, and varieties than you might be familiar with, including earthy olive green, bright crimson red, and a more familiar rich maroon.
A batch of plums costs only ¥1,000, a rather paltry sum to keep your ghostly foes at bay. If you’re willing to shell out a few more bills you can bite into giant rose-colored plums going for a hefty ¥3,500 each. They ain’t cheap, but can you really put a price on supernatural safety?
Once you’ve stocked up on fruit, it might be time for a heartier snack. With around 120 stalls along the path to the temple, there’s something for every appetite—especially those that like their yaki (food that is grilled or fried). Dorayaki, takoyaki, Nozawana-oyaki, okonomiyaki, yakisoba … there’s lots of greasy goodness up for grabs, and their low prices (dishes are only a few hundred yen) mean you can try plenty. Remember, though: these starchy foods are filling, so come hungry.
Food aside, the Sumomo Matsuri has plenty more to do and see. On the grounds of the shrine itself, visitors can pick up special omamori (a kind of protective talisman) embroidered with images of menacing crows. Legend says these special ornaments will keep pests away from crops and help ensure a good harvest. If that’s not presently a concern, their beautiful designs still make them great souvenirs.
The real prize, though, is the Sumomo Festival’s famous crow fans. While deluxe sensu (folding fans) cost ¥5,000, a mere ¥500 will get you an uchiwa (flat fan) that not only keeps your fields bug-free but helps you stay cool on stuffy summer train rides. The tiny fan shop boasts the longest queue of the festival and has a limited quantity of its beautiful fans, so make sure to arrive before noon if you want to guarantee getting one of your own. Sale starts at 6 a.m. and once they’re gone, they’re gone!
Festivals like this are a great way to get a little fresh air, enjoy a change of pace, and celebrate Japan’s storied cultural history. Nestled among tall, leafy trees and only five minutes from both Fuchu and Fuchu-Honmachi Stations, Ōkunitama Shrine’s Sumomo Festival is the perfect excuse to escape the city and try something new. With delicious food, good fortune, and mystical fruit, it’s hard to imagine a better way to spend a summer afternoon.